Like old times

As Russia pressures Eastern Europe, the U.S. looks away

Like old timesThis summer, in a year that marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, 22 Eastern and Central European intellectuals and former political leaders sent an extraordinary open letter to the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama. The signatories included former prime ministers and presidents from across the region—among them democratic revolutionaries Vaclav Havel, first president of the Czech Republic, and former Polish president and trade union leader Lech Walesa, whose Solidarity movement helped trigger the collapse of Communism in Europe.

All are staunchly pro-American, and many, like Havel and Walesa, veterans of the anti-Soviet struggles that won political freedom for their countries two decades ago. Their letter therefore reads like a missive to an old friend. But a current of anguish runs through it. They fear that the United States is turning away from their region at a time when its engagement is once again most needed.

“Many of us know first-hand how important your support for our freedom and independence was during the dark Cold War years,” the letter reads. “Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, however, we see that Central and Eastern countries are no longer at the heart of American foreign policy.” The letter suggests the new Obama administration has concluded that Eastern and Central Europe is a part of the world it doesn’t need to worry about. “That view is premature. All is not well in our region or in the transatlantic relationship. Central and Eastern Europe is at a political crossroads and today there is a growing sense of nervousness in the region.”

The source of much of this nervousness is a familiar Cold War adversary: Russia, which, the letter’s authors claim, “is back as a revisionist power” and is throwing its weight around. Coupled with a more belligerent Russia, the former political leaders warn that a new generation of political leaders is emerging whose members didn’t experience and don’t appreciate Washington’s role in “securing our democratic transition and anchoring our countries in NATO and the EU.” Instead, these new leaders follow what the letter’s authors describe, in ironic quotation marks, as a “realistic” policy. In other words, they seek to accommodate Russia.

The issue identified in the letter as the “thorniest” was a planned missile defence system that would have seen 10 interceptor rockets deployed in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic. Announced during the presidency of George W. Bush, the system was said to offer protection against Iranian missiles, but Russia saw it as a provocation and protested. “Regardless of the military merits of this scheme and what Washington eventually decides to do, the issue has nevertheless also become—at least in some countries—a symbol of America’s credibility and commitment to the region,” the letter concluded. “How it is handled could have a significant impact on their future transatlantic orientation.”

That letter was written in July. In September, Obama cancelled the missile defence plan, promising to replace it with land and sea-based interceptors. It’s difficult to imagine how he could have more dramatically bungled the announcement. It was made on Sept. 17, the 70th anniversary of the Soviet attack on Poland. The Czech prime minister was woken up to receive the news in a brief phone call from Obama the night before. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the call to Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. He refused to speak to her.

Press reaction in Poland and the Czech Republic was hot and bitter. “Betrayal! The U.S. sold us to Russia and stabbed us in the back,” declared the Polish tabloid Fakt on its front page. “No radar. Russia won,” read the front-page headline in Mlada fronta DNES, a popular Czech daily. An editorial in the Czech business newspaper, Hospodarski noviny, also accused the United States of perfidy: “An ally we rely on has betrayed us, and exchanged us for its own better relations with Russia, of which we are rightly afraid.” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev welcomed Obama’s decision as a “responsible move.”

Although support for missile defence was far from universal in the Czech Republic, Petr Drulak, director of the Institute of International Relations in Prague, says that those who supported the plan did so because it implied defiance toward Russia. “It was about the symbolic value of having an American military presence on Czech territory,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s.

The missile defence dust-up was a skirmish in a much larger, undeclared conflict between Russia and the United States and its allies for influence in Eastern Europe and in other countries that were once part of the Soviet Empire. At its most extreme, this has manifested itself in outright war, as was the case in Georgia last summer. But much more common are implied threats, chest-thrusting diplomatic posturing, and economic blackmail by Russia. “It challenges our claims to our own historical experiences,” write the letter’s authors. “It asserts a privileged position in determining our security choices. It uses overt and covert means of economic warfare, ranging from energy blockades and politically motivated investments to bribery and media manipulation in order to advance its interests and to challenge the transatlantic orientation of Central and Eastern Europe.”

According to Jiri Schneider, a former senior official in the Czech ministry of foreign affairs, now at the Prague Security Studies Institute: “Russia is trying to recreate its influence through other means.” Moscow’s most powerful weapons are oil and gas. Both Western and Eastern Europe currently get much of their energy supplies from Russia, via pipelines that traverse former Soviet and satellite states in Eastern Europe. Russia has frequently shut down those pipelines as a means to punish and pressure countries such as Ukraine. The problem for Russia is that such disruptions have the collateral effect of angering Western European customers and costing Russia a lot of money. A newly planned “Nord Stream” gas pipeline will end this inconvenience by taking the gas directly from Russia to German via the Baltic Sea, leaving Russia free to freeze out Ukraine without bothering anyone in Germany or France.

Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, whose loathing of the Soviet Union was such that, as a student activist during the 1980s, he travelled to Afghanistan to join the mujahedeen fighting the Russians there, has compared the pipeline deal to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that divided Eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union.

Russia hasn’t shied away from strong rhetoric either, especially when aiming to control events in Ukraine—a country it considers firmly in its sphere of influence, if not merely an uppity province. Former Russian president and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reportedly told George W. Bush last year that Ukraine is “not even a state.” This summer—on the first anniversary of Russia’s war with Georgia—Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sent an open letter to his Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yushchenko, accusing him of being “anti-Russian” and urging co-operation with Moscow. Medvedev posted a video blog to go with the letter, in which he is dressed in black and stands above the Black Sea, where two Russia military boats are visible on the horizon.

The message is as much to the Ukrainian people as it is to Yushchenko. Elections will be held in Ukraine in January, and Medvedev wants to be sure an accommodating presidential candidate is chosen. It looks like he’ll get his wish. Five years after the Orange Revolution brought the pro-Western Yushchenko to power, his popularity has tanked. The pro-Russian Viktor Yunukovych, whom Yushchenko defeated in 2005, is leading most opinion polls, while the ever-adaptable Yulia Tymoshenko, his nearest competitor and once one of the main figures of the Orange Revolution, also wants to restore friendly relations with Moscow.

Russia, in short, is determined to regain its influence in Eastern Europe, and it is having some success. The question is whether the United States is ready to meet Moscow’s challenge, or is Washington’s commitment to Eastern Europe withering?

According to Tony Judt, a New York University historian and author of the acclaimed book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, it is. “But let’s remember that those ‘commitments’ were never more than verbal and political,” he says. “Washington (and NATO and the EU) were never going to ‘save’ Ukraine or Moldova or Georgia, come to that, from Moscow’s influence and pressure.” Eastern Europe enjoyed what Judt describes as an “interim moment” of exaggerated importance under the presidency of George W. Bush. Now the Obama administration is “less oriented toward Europe than any U.S. administration since the 1930s,” he says. “Why on earth should it take special notice of Europe’s least influential region?”

The problems America confronts today are in places like Iran, China, and Central Asia, where the United States needs Russian co-operation to be effective. “Washington has no choice but to think bigger,” says Judt, “and Russia is a country that abuts places that matter a hell of a lot more than Slovakia.”

So where does this leave Eastern Europe, if it is to be bullied by Moscow and now overlooked by Washington?

The answer differs across the region. Russia’s ability to shape events in Ukraine, for example, is far greater than in the Czech Republic. And the Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia, while protected by their membership in NATO and the European Union, remain vulnerable to Russia in ways that Slovakia or Hungary are not. “They are physically threatened,” says Michael Wyganowski, an adviser at the Center for European Policy Analysis and formerly a senior Polish diplomat in Washington. “They have major Russian minority populations. We know what Moscow has said about protecting their brethren abroad. They’ve been cyber-attacked, economically attacked. Russia is an actual physical threat.” In recent Estonian municipal elections, the Estonian Centre Party, which is led by Edgar Savisaar and supports closer ties with Moscow, did extremely well in the north of the country by mobilizing the ethnic Russian minority there.

Everywhere in the region, however, Moscow is reasserting itself while America’s attention drifts elsewhere. Eastern Europe’s best chance of reversing this trend may be by working with the rest of Europe, including its lukewarm allies in the western half of the continent. “The Eastern Europeans need to learn to think of themselves as members of the European Union, rather than just as beneficiaries of European Union cash whose real allegiance lies across the Atlantic,” says Judt.

This strategy has its challenges. Western Europe also relies on Russian gas, and without either Eastern Europe’s collective memory of Soviet occupation, or its geographic proximity to Russia, they aren’t overly sympathetic to Eastern European concerns about Russian bullying. It doesn’t help that Western European politicans have a habit of taking lucrative jobs with Russian gas companies once they leave office. The idea that Eastern Europe might more effectively attract American support in co-operation with the rest of the continent is also weakened by the fact that Western Europe doesn’t have a lot of pull with Washington these days, either. “The extra weight that [Eastern Europe] needs to get American attention depends in part on Western Europe, and Western Europe is not asserting itself and is not showing that it is part of the solution to very many problems,” says Stephen Sestanovitch, a former U.S ambassador at large during the Bill Clinton administration, who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “When American policy makers look at Europe, what they tend to see are fat, comfortable countries that aren’t making much of an effort to work with the United States on big problems.”

This is one of the reasons why Eastern European Atlanticists feel so jilted. They did try to help America with its big problems. They sent soldiers to Afghanistan and to Iraq when the United States was desperate for international support. “I think they justifiably feel as if they have to some extent been used,” says Charles Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University.

Poland, for example, took on a sizable burden in Iraq and wanted to believe it was also carving out a special relationship with the United States. “Now that it is finding out that it is being treated like an Italy or a Spain, Poles are saying, ‘Wait a minute. We stood by the United States when the chips were down. What has it gotten us?’ ” says Kupchan. It didn’t get them much. Polish citizens still need a visa to travel to the United States.

In cold, geostrategic terms, it may be that the United States can afford to let its ties with Eastern Europe fray. Compared with, say, Pakistan, the region is stable and repercussions of a decline in American influence are minor. Put simply, Washington has limited resources and bigger problems. And the countries of Eastern Europe, for their part, arguably need to forge closer ties with the rest of Europe. Geography is still hugely important in global politics, and you can’t pick your neighbours.

Still, for Eastern Europeans who looked to America for help during the Cold War, and whose countries benefited from American support while transitioning to democracy in the post-Soviet era, the cooling trend stings. For the United States, it may also be risky. History has a way of taking unexpected turns. And while good allies are difficult to keep, they are harder, and more costly, to get back.